A Little Respect, Please (Soapbox Series, 2)

Usually, I don’t open a post with questions, but today I am starting with these:

  •  Why do we need to use everyday bodily functions to create humor in picture books?
  • Can anyone tell me why we need sex in books for 10-year-olds?

P-L-E-A-S-E don’t try to tell me that it’s because they see it on TV or hear it from their friends. We are talking about reading a book, not watching YouTube.

Yes, I am getting cranky about this. When I am sorting new arrivals or selecting books to read (or share with other families!), I look at each one on several levels: as a Mom, as book geek, as someone who loves great storytelling, and as literacy advocate. Every week, between 15 and 30 new titles arrive on my desk. They get sorted into two piles. One pile is the number of books I need to load into the data base. The other pile is the collection I need to think about before I place them. Guess which pile is growing the fastest?

Here’s my analysis: there are a lot of books that are making themselves unremarkable and indistinguishable because the author drops some non-relevant titillating activity that ends up exposing (pardon the pun) other story weaknesses. Some of these may well be high interest/low-readability, but determining that will take even more time to determine the reading level.

Our summer intern (rising public high school senior, AP classes, broad volunteer resume) has been randomly selecting some middle-grade and YA books for herself, including some from the “maybe” pile. She loves to read and has tried a number of genres. She describes more than a few of them as “Okay,” then offers specific details about how the character got lost because of too much “stuff” going on. She also suggests ideas on what would have strengthened the story.

It is not just chapter books, though. We recently read a picture book with my almost-seven-year-old that has a great story: during a family outing, the child character must confront her fears. Great theme, well done. So then why does the author add a character fart (literally – with sound effect text) every couple of pages? It is just not relevant to the story. Yes, we can skip over that when we read the book, but the book comes with a listen-along CD, so now that the seven-year-old has memorized the story, she reminds us about the fart we “forgot.”

There are books for young children (generally toddlers and preschoolers) that talk about body functions. This is not one of those books, and it really is no fun having to stop to read and reread those parts. What I have learned is that my child has not absorbed the story, only the “potty talk.” [Potty talk: Isn’t that an oxymoron? Parents want kids to be mature, so we use the word “potty” with them.]

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when body functions (burping, farting, etc.) or even curse words are well-timed, effective plot devices. They can add humor or comic relief. The forbidden can be very effective. Using them can also offer the all-important teaching moment. Can I just say George Carlin, may he rest in peace?

We all love titillation, and what makes us burst out in an oh-I-shouldn’t-giggle-at-that changes over time. The bathroom humor at four and five “evolves” into something that results in even more giggles, yuks, “ew, gross” and “I’m telling Mom!” We never really outgrow the need … we just manage it differently.

So where am I going with this rant? Back to the beginning: respect the reader. Books can be enchanting and silly and make you laugh just because. They don’t always have to be educational or loaded with VITMs (Very Important Teaching Moments). But neither do they need to be overloaded with bathroom humor.

Don’t drop body-function plot devices into a book because you think that is what will make the kid read your book. If it isn’t relevant or (dare I say) natural, leave it out. Kids know a trick when they see it. Kids will also  tell you what they think, so ask them what they like to read about.  If you’re adding these devices to encourage reluctant and remedial readers, then talk to them. What would keep them turning the pages? How much of the story should emphasize the gross-out factor? Is the laugh more important than a good story? Do they read a story just because it has lots of farts and burps? Ask them. Then ask their parents if they’ll buy that book.

Take the opportunity to read what the kidlit and YA bloggers have to say. Which are the books they aren’t reviewing and which books do they love? Which books to they recommend for reluctant and remedial readers? Which ones for mature readers? No, they aren’t just talking about the books produced by established or award-winning authors or big publishing houses. In this part of the blogosphere there are some phenomenal discussions and powerful voices: the listening audience, emerging reader, skilled reader, educator, parent, and book purchaser.  We read what you produce and we share our thoughts so others can benefit…or not make the mistake we did.

We, your readers, wear many hats: target audience, parent, teacher, librarian, literacy advocate, and consumer. If you want to elevate a child’s character, then give us stories that offer kids the chance to grow and explore … not keep their mind in the gutter.